Will the new home you’ve been dreaming about include a parlor? Or maybe a rec room?
Not likely. Sure, the house might have a lovely room in front where you could entertain visitors or you might have a finished basement where you’ll hang out and have fun.
But the chances that you’ll ever refer to these spaces as a “parlor” or a “rec room” are slim to none.
That’s because as American home design evolves through the generations, so do the ways we refer to their rooms, according to an expert on architectural history and the builders who study our lifestyles and fancies.
What’s in a Name?
Room names are in a permanent state of flux, according to Matthew Gordon Lasner, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban Affairs and & Planning at Hunter College in New York.
“Over the years we continually see new nomenclature — we’re always seeing new names come and go, as rooms are tweaked and as configurations and purposes shift, along with the way we live and who we live with,” Lasner said.
Master Bedroom Name Change
Take, for example, the “master suite,” a recent staple of homebuilding and remodeling. The idea of a spacious principal sleeping chamber with an attached bathroom has been high on consumers’ wish lists for the past couple of decades.
And it still is—but don’t necessarily expect to see it called that when you scrutinize a builder’s floor plan. The antiquated and insensitive term “master suite” is being ditched by many builders in favor of “primary suite.”
Why? Well, that requires a bit of a history lesson. The term “master’s suite” became popular at the very beginning of the 20th century; given historical context, you can start to understand the implications. But home descriptions didn’t stop there.
“You’d see real estate ads in the 1920s saying ‘a house with four masters’ bedrooms, three servants’ rooms,’ ” Lasner explained. This room and the term indicate a sort of desirable power, a direct holdover from legalized slavery. Additionally, “master” tends to skew toward male, and with more single women buying homes than ever, it’s time for this term to go. Note: New Home Source no longer uses the term, instead referring to the space as the primary bedroom and bathroom.
From Parlors and Foyers to Living Rooms
It’s not the only outdated term that we’ve seen slowly disappear, and likewise, other terms have shifted due to cultural and societal changes.
The parlor, most associated with the Victorian era, was considered a relatively public space to differentiate the private areas of the home. Family heirlooms and other materialistic displays of wealth were held here, to greet guests.
As the working class developed and grew, displays of wealth became less common and unnecessary. Thus, the parlor and foyer — previously meant to keep guests at arm’s length from the rest of the home — gradually gave way to the modern living room.
As recent as the ’80s, when open concept design began to dominate and socializing and entertainment continue to be parts of daily life, the term “living room” slowly began to be replaced by the term “great room.”
Where We’re Going
Home builders are still adding to their vocabularies — terms for rooms with specialized functions continue to pop up and be embraced by consumers. Fairly recent ones that have gained a toehold include media room, home office, and outdoor kitchen.
More are on the horizon.
Builders such as Pulte Homes have recently popularized the notion of a “drop zone,” an expanded version of the mudroom (between the garage and the rest of the house), where the homeowner and kids can come in and drop everything — backpacks, phones, shoes — but the space is designed so everything has a specific spot.
Another space developed with organization at the forefront is the planning center or command station. This area, just off the kitchen, is a dedicated computer space to manage bills, homework, and other day-to-day responsibilities.
In-law suites, popular among multi-generational families, are another modern development. Standalone cottages outside the home and garage apartments are variations that have all developed due to contemporary housing needs.
As societies change, design — like all other things — must adapt in order to stay relevant. These changes in room names are a small sign of the steps we’ve taken in learning from the past. And as common as these terms still are, it’s also a reminder of how far we have to go.
Mia Zozobrado joined Builders Digital Experience (BDX) in 2019 as a content writer. A graduate of Southwestern University with a degree in English, Mia is passionate about the written word and making connections. Outside of work, Mia also serves on the Board of Directors for the Writers’ League of Texas.